© 2005 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
02/18/05 8:00 AM ET
Hairston earned great respect
Special person left mark on players, game he loved
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- The brief statistical ledger for Sam Hairston's Major League career reads two hits in five at-bats during the 1951 season. But Hairston's impact on baseball, especially on the White Sox organization, runs far deeper than one run scored, one double, one RBI and four games played. Here was a top-notch catcher, who went to work alongside Willie Mays, Nellie Fox, Satchel Paige and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. Here was a consummate scout and coach, who tutored a young rookie named Michael Jordan, among many others, and worked for manager Terry Francona with Class AA Birmingham. This was a man who loved baseball. The game apparently felt the same way about Sam Hairston. "Some people are just special," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf of Hairston, who he not only counted as an employee but also a close friend. "Sam was just a wonderful, wonderful person. He was a nice man and had a special aura about him." "One of my favorites," added White Sox minor league pitching coordinator Kirk Champion, who served as the pitching coach for the Barons while Hairston was a bench coach. "He was a tremendous guy, always upbeat."
Hairston, who passed away at the age of 77 on Oct. 31, 1997, is remembered as the first African-American player to suit up for the White Sox during MLB.com's celebration of Black History Month. His initial trip to the plate came as a pinch-hitter, borrowing a bat from Minnie Minoso to double in a run. Just two months earlier, the Cuban-born Minoso became the first black player to join the White Sox.
But Hairston's career actually began in 1944 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, and also included a stop with the Indianapolis Clowns. Hairston won the Negro American League's Triple Crown in 1950 with a .424 average, 17 home runs and 71 RBIs in 70 games. His career eventually came to a close in 1960 at Colorado Springs, a minor league affiliate of the White Sox at the time.
"He was 40 when he retired, but his baseball age was 35," said Jerry Hairston Sr., the youngest of Sam's three sons, with a laugh. "That was corrected when he became a coach."
Jerry Hairston Sr. remembers waiting at two or three in the morning for the bus carrying his dad to return home in the late 1950s. He remembers the strong influence his dad held over his ultimate career choice, simply by telling the exciting stories of his baseball days around the dinner table.
There are also the tales of a catcher with laser-like accuracy, who was able to temporarily bridge the racial gap with his ability and class during trying times.
"The country was right in the middle of a lot of things, racially and socially, and he was able to live both sides of the color line," said Hairston Sr., who played all but 51 games of his 14-year big league career with the White Sox and was one of the game's top pinch-hitters. "He knew about prejudice, but he experienced white America, just like he did black America.
"People associated with him on a different level. Sports allowed him to be where he wasn't certain people's best friend, but they appreciated his work and came out to see him. He was able to talk to them on a different level than most of black America, which was an education in itself.
"Real baseball fans, especially the white fans, saw the Negro Leagues and realized they were seeing baseball at a high level," Hairston added. "Some of them playing in the Negro Leagues were better than players in the Major Leagues. They didn't necessarily want integration to happen, but they knew this wasn't inferior baseball they were watching."
Hairston mentioned that his dad never was bitter about being shut out of the Majors until 1951, viewing baseball as a way to put food on the table for his family. Reinsdorf paints an ever-so-slightly different picture of Sam Hairston in regards to his short stay with the White Sox.
"Sam had two hits in five at-bats and never came back, and he was considered a very good catcher," Reinsdorf said of Hairston's brief opportunity. "He didn't talk about it in a bitter way, but he felt as if he didn't get a fair chance."
Sam's career path was followed by almost the entire male side of the Hairston family, with nine members of the immediate family playing professionally. Jerry's brother, John, played briefly for the Cubs in the highly-publicized 1969 season, with Jerry Hairston Jr. now returning to the North Side in the midst of an even bigger media frenzy.
It was Sam's grandson who was traded from Baltimore to Chicago in early February as part of the Sammy Sosa deal. He once again will be going up against the team his family has been associated with for close to six decades. Jerry Jr. also has the chance to play against his brother, Scott, who is part of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Jerry Sr. begins his third year as the manager at Bristol, the White Sox's rookie affiliate in the Appalachian League. His father coached right up until the last days his health would allow, making an immeasurable impact on the young players in the system.
"He was a good scout and a good judge of talent," Reinsdorf said. "But the thing he did best was the mentoring of players that came through Birmingham."
"The players just appreciated him as a person, even though they didn't always know about his place in history," Champion added. "He was out there to help players and help the team win."
According to Jerry Sr., when the Comiskey family planned to sell the White Sox, orders were given to the farm director at the time to make sure Sam Hairston always had a job with the team. Reinsdorf tells the story of how Sam took Wilson Alvarez into his Birmingham home. Alvarez, a left-handed hurler now pitching for the Dodgers, didn't speak much English as a youngster in the late 80s and early 90s and was dealing with family health issues.
But some of the greatest memories for Jerry Sr. came from when he was a minor league player. Former Negro League standouts would come out to watch Sam's son in action, just by catching his last name in a box score the day before.
That sort of respect always was afforded to Sam Hairston, as a player and as a man.
"It is a remarkable baseball family," Champion said. "Sam just enjoyed going to the ballpark, and I would love to just sit and listen to him. Hearing about the path he took and the experiences he had along the way were just outstanding"
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.